Tag Archives: Newt Gingrich

Reflections on the invention of peoples

When I recently challenged Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine about his response to Newt Gingrich’s controversial statement about the “invented” Palestinian people, he responded that his “semi-critique of nationalism is equal opportunity” and he suggested that I check out two of his relevant articles. (Twitter exchange Ibishblog – WarpedMirrorPMB December 10; the exchange began when I took issue with Ibish’s argument that “there was no Israel and no such thing as an ‘Israeli people’ before 1948. So the idea that Palestinians are ‘an invented people’ while Israelis somehow are not is historically indefensible and inaccurate;” in response, I pointed out that the “Land of Israel” as well as the “Israelites” are concepts dating back to biblical times.)

I have by now read several of the relevant articles written by Ibish, including the two he urged me to read. In my view, there is no doubt that Ibish’s thoughts on the subject are sophisticated and make for very worthwhile reading; but, for reasons I will explain below, I’m not convinced that his critique of nationalism is as even-handed as he claims.

The first article Ibish recommended to me is entitled “Fetishizing nationalism.” Living up to his claim of being an “equal opportunity”-critic of nationalism, Ibish argues right at the beginning of this piece: “All contemporary nationalisms are based on constructed and imagined narratives about history, geography, culture, ethnicity and religion.” In his concluding paragraph, Ibish again emphasizes:

“The analytical challenge is to recognize that while not all nationalist claims are necessarily equally valid (they may speak on behalf of very few people, for example, and not really have the constituency they claim), in some important senses they are, however, all equally invalid. Championing one’s own nationalism as self-evidently ‘authentic’ at the expense of a well-established, deeply-rooted and much-cherished rival identity is a particularly lowly form of self-delusion, chauvinism and fetishism.”

That last sentence has a seemingly solomonic quality, since it can be read as addressed to Palestinians and Israelis alike. Unfortunately, in the context of this particular article, it seems more likely that Ibish was admonishing those who subscribe to the “traditional Zionist narrative” that Ibish breezily summarizes in a previous paragraph.

The second article Ibish recommended is entitled “Mr. Mileikowsky and the ‘seal of Netanyahu’: the perilous encounter between modern nationalism and ancient history.” Again, at the outset of the piece, Ibish appears to be very much the “equal opportunity”-critic of nationalism he claims to be when he argues:

“the nationalist identities of Egypt or China are not more authentic or legitimate because they claim direct descent from ancient civilizations and kingdoms than is the American one which celebrates its non-ethnic, sui generis (at the time of its founding anyway), and ideological self-definition. All three are equally the products of a set of developments in global history that produced them in their present form at the current moment. The American version of nationalism based on adherence to political principles and a kind of US civic religion can’t be privileged over ethnic nationalisms either, and is also very much grounded in myth, legend and historical fantasy.”

Ibish then proceeds to take on the notion “that there is a hierarchy of legitimacy of nationalist claims and that the Israeli one is simply and obviously superior, older, more ‘authentic’ and more deeply rooted than the Palestinian one.” Continue reading

Gingrich and the Golden Rule

Once upon a time, Newt Gingrich was a professor of history, and since he is now competing to become the Republican presidential candidate, his record as a historian is being mined for clues about his political views. Needless to say, Gingrich’s professorial past doesn’t necessarily impress his critics – indeed, Gingrich has already been advised to “read a history book.” If he followed this advice, he could read one of the books he wrote

Unsurprisingly, Gingrich also got some history lessons in response to his recent observation that historically, “there was no Palestine as a state” and that the Palestinians are an “invented” people “who are in fact Arabs, and were historically part of the Arab community.”

Responding to Gingrich’s statement, Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine asserted that “there was no Israel and no such thing as an ‘Israeli people’ before 1948. So the idea that Palestinians are ‘an invented people’ while Israelis somehow are not is historically indefensible and inaccurate. Such statements seem to merely reflect deep historical ignorance and an irrational hostility towards Palestinian identity and nationalism.”

While Ibish conveniently ignores the fact that the “Land of Israel” as well as the “Israelites” are of course biblical concepts, he is not entirely wrong, because – as Walter Russell Mead demonstrates in an essay devoted to Gingrich’s statement – it is indeed easy to argue that national identity is often an “invented” construct. At the same time, Mead acknowledges that Gingrich’s statement “is not factually incorrect as far as it goes;” yet, he is also sharply critical of Gingrich, arguing that his “error isn’t to say that Palestinian identity is to some degree invented; his error is to use that fact to undercut the reality and legitimacy of the Palestinian national movement.”

Mead also emphasizes that “both the US and Israel need people who can make a sober and reasoned case for the legitimacy of the Jewish state and of America’s support for it in ways that reduce international misunderstanding of and opposition to the two countries. But unfortunately remarks like Mr. Gingrich’s (to be fair, a short aside in a longer interview) make that conversation harder, not easier to have.”

While I would largely agree with Mead’s post, I think it’s worthwhile contemplating the notion that there is still a need to “make a sober and reasoned case for the legitimacy of the Jewish state and of America’s support for it in ways that reduce international misunderstanding of and opposition to the two countries.”

Obviously, Mead believes that it is utterly counterproductive to respond to the prevalent questioning of the Jewish state’s legitimacy by Palestinians and the larger Arab and Muslim world by pointing out the fact that the case for a Palestinian state is not based on a long-established and historically-rooted Palestinian national identity.

But I’m not sure if this really true.

As Adam Levick points out on Cif Watch, the non-existent state of Palestine is already recognized by some 125 of the 193 UN member states – while Israel, more than six decades after its acceptance as a UN member state, is still not recognized by 36 UN members, including 30 Muslim majority countries. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence showing that the UN supports a veritable “infrastructure of anti-Israel propaganda” and devotes truly disproportionate resources and energies to censuring Israel.

So while Israel and its supporters are supposed to play by the rules of fairness and to strictly observe the dictates of political correctness, the rule for the supporters of Palestine seems to be “anything goes.”

But it turns out that when the Palestinians find themselves at the receiving end of even the slightest breach of political correctness, the result could most definitely be described as a “teachable moment.”

Consider some of the Palestinian reactions to Gingrich’s statement:

Saeb Erekat, the veteran Palestinian peace negotiator, characterized Gingrich’s statements as “despicable,” asserting that they not only reflected “the lowest point of thinking anyone can reach” but also contributed to “the cycle of violence.”

Hanan Ashrawi, another veteran Palestinian spokesperson, described Gingrich’s remarks as “very racist” and “an invitation to further conflict rather than any contribution to peace.”

Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, asserted that Gingrich had made “grave comments that represented an incitement for ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians.”

If all these Palestinian officials familiarized themselves with the “Golden Rule” that admonishes us to “do as you would be done by,” we can look forward to a bright future in which no Palestinian – and no Arab or Muslim – will ever think of denying Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state.

Crossposted from the JPost